This interview with Nabaneeta Dev Sen – writer, academic and women’s rights champion – who died on November 7, 2019, was conducted by writer and publisher Ritu Menon in 2003.
Nabaneeta di, you are an enormously popular writer, and yet people say that your writing is subversive. Do you agree?
I have been very, very fortunate as far as receiving love from my readers is concerned. And it is also true that I have been trying to be subversive, and it has sometimes it has worked and sometimes hasn’t. At times it’s gone over people’s heads…I don’t know whether I should mention one of our famous Bengali critics, a woman – very few women critics in Bengal, she is one of them – she did a long review of Volume One of my Collected Short Stories and massacred it in a way that I didn’t expect, and all the subversion was completely submerged in her reading. She hadn’t been able to read me, unlike the common reader…so it doesn’t always work.
But how would you characterise it? Would you call it subversive or transgressive?
…Perhaps transgressive would be better. Yes, I think that’s better way of describing them.
And what is it that you think the writing is transgressing?
Well, there are different boundaries to our lives. Different canons, different myths, old and new – work as the line of control – curtailing our freedom. I don’t know what I should talk about first. You know how I try my hand at everything, I try to work with all possible genres and in different ways. I like to play around in my writing and I enjoy doing whatever comes to mind.
And because I work with the Valmiki Ramayana, in my academic life – in fact my transgression started there – my research was a detailed linguistic analysis, checking the technique of oral composition in the Valmiki Ramayana, which challenged the traditionally accepted identity of the epic, claiming it to be an oral text, a primary epic rather than kavya, a secondary epic. I met a lot of obstacles from conservative traditional Sanskrit scholars in India when I tried to consult them. This was in the early 1960s – the work lies abandoned and incomplete after being partially published abroad.
But, getting back to my literary efforts…I started playing around with Ramayana, that is what my subversive work is – I attack the Ramayana in my stories. There are many stories – the stories of Sita, stories of Laxman, of Shurpanakha, of Hanuman – these are epic-based stories where I have written a subtext…In most cases I haven’t changed the story, just changed the thesis and added a new point of view, allowing the reader to look at the Ramayana from another perspective, the woman’s perspective. These are humorous writings, they make people laugh…
But not the transgressive writings…
Not the transgressive writings because, in the end, you can say that I have not changed the story. For the transgressive, let us see…I wonder…when you think about topics…
Let me put it to you slightly differently. Do any of your voices cross over from one form to the other, and which of them would you call transgressive and which subversive? It could be the subject-matter, it could be the form, it could be the writing, it could be the treatment...
That’s a difficult question. You define transgressive for me...
I would say transgressing social norms, transgressing literary norms – you have said for example that a woman’s writing is her gesture and like all gestures it is subject to social codes, so in my view the transgression would be the transgression of those codes. Whereas subversion is what you do. So of all the genres you use which are the ones that you would…
I suppose…(pauses) in my travelogues I’ve been quite transgressive, and one or two of my novels… with the form and the subject. And…my one-act plays.
And I have made some experiments also with form…let me see now about subject matter…Ah…(Long pause) When my first novel came out it was in the middle of the Emergency, it was a political novel, it was a novel which was about the Naxal movement, questioning the role of intellectuals in leading young people on and then – not taking the responsibility of what happened to them when they walked into disaster. So that book came out in 1976, October. That I think was one of the earliest books to deal with the Naxal movement – unfortunately, I think it was even before Mahasweta’s…so I think this was a transgressive thing to do…
What about the novel that you wrote on ageing, on old women…
Yes, yes, you know why. The magazine that asked me to write, I hated that magazine, I didn’t like it at all, but it was published by a family into which my niece had been married so it was very difficult for me to say, No I won’t write…so I thought of this. I’ve been thinking about ageing for a long time, so it’s about an old women’s home and women who came from different backgrounds, and there actually was one woman from – it’s a very interesting book actually, really, I liked that book very much.
This was in 1988…there’s one woman who’s a writer and she has cancer…and her children don’t want her to go to the home but she wants to go. And then there’s another woman who comes from a very rich baniya family and her house, it’s in the red light district. In Calcutta you have some old houses in districts before the district became a red light area. The houses were there and these families didn’t move away, but they have been surrounded by brothels. So in front of these houses they write “Grihastho Ghar”, this is a respectable home.
So she comes from one of the those homes but, although she is from West Bengal her language is the language of that area, the language of the red light district, and she is also a very special woman who clearly says that her husband was no good and she’s had many lovers…because her husband could not produce children, she had to go to others and have children. Now her daughter-in-law is from a convent, and she is shocked.
She can’t stand this mother-in-law, her words, everything she does is so shocking. She lives in a flat with her husband and the way she talks so freely about sex and sexuality, the idea of female sexuality is so real to her…it’s nothing important, and she talks of enjoying sex and this – daughter-in-law who is from a convent is not like that, of course. Sexuality is not something you can talk about. She thinks it’s really in very poor taste.
However, the mother-in-law also makes it clear to her that your husband is not my husband’s son…so that sort of thing. Then there are the others in the home – the thing is a woman like that, she is very rich, but she has also decided to come to this place – but the other women in the home object to her language, after all it’s a respectable place, we don’t want women like that…But then slowly we see that she is a very special woman…People can’t understand how this very respectable writer, respected by everyone, and this woman talk – nobody else can talk to her…
It sounds wonderful! How was it received by this particular magazine, at this particular time.
It just sank. The magazine isn’t published any more, it was in the wrong place. Unfortunately I published all my novels – each one is about a very serious theme that’s why I write one novella a year, novella not novels, and not very long. They are short and serious – but unfortunately they are published in Nabakallol which is a cheap magazine and not regarded as one of the important ones. And why do I write for them? Because they are the ones who want me to write a novel for them and the others, they have their own coteries as I told you long ago, so I don’t write for them…
Let me go back to my question: Do your voices cross over from one genre to another? And second, have your transgressive writings had the same popularity as your subversive writing?
No. No, no they haven’t. I mean as far as the travel stories are concerned they are very popular. They are transgressive, very clearly, openly, and of course they are personal, all about my own travels, not imaginary prose or imaginary writing. They are real journals and they have become very, very popular.
So when you are identifiably yourself in your writing, the transgression is more acceptable? Is that it, or is it that the issues you deal with in your transgressive writing are not acceptable…
I think the issues, yes, the issues. Bamabodhini, my other novel, has many kinds of transgression. I experimented with the form because it’s prose, but whenever it gets too intense then it turns into poetry, and there are sections where it’s critical prose, an academic work – it’s all part of a woman’s life.
Would you say that in Bamabodhini your voices have crossed over?
Well, my voices haven’t, probably. I didn’t want to say it’s my voice…
No, no, when I say voice, I mean the voice that you use distinctively in each of these forms…
Yes, yes, it’s got many things, it has poetry, it has research, it has critical prose and it has regular prose.
Do you think there is a relationship between gender and genre?
Well, grammatically, yes, etymologically, yes. (Laughs) I don’t think, nowadays, the way we’ve been writing, that some genres are meant for men. That distinction doesn’t hold any longer.
What about subject matter?
Yes…for a very long time there have been some subjects that are our favourites because that has been our experience. I mean, women didn’t write about war, they didn’t write long historical novels. The way we wrote them was gothic novels, but real historical novels were not women’s forte because we weren’t interested…In India, Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire – in English you can’t think of a historical novel like that, can you? You can’t. She’s one of a kind.
When women write historical novels, like Ashapurna Devi, it’s history all right, but it’s not a historical novel, it’s not the development of a country, of a society, it’s not historical change. It’s very personal, seen through a woman’s eyes, through her experience, but…
But if we were to give it a feminist reading, question the usual historical novel, can’t we say that what women write about constitutes social history?
Of course! Because you asked about genre and gender, and subject matter, then if you take the regular definition, there are some things which are women’s – like, it’s okay for women to write romances, it’s okay for them to write… but things have changed. I suppose, after being informed by feminist theorists, now we can re-read women’s writings and reclaim them. Now we can see that the kind of history we write is what historians won’t write about. That which is not seen in the historical novels written by men is written by us. It fills in that gap…
In your stories, for example, you wrote about yourself, your children, your mother – you wrote about a microcosmic social unit and that, I think, is simultaneously subversive and transgressive.
I’m glad you say that, I would have thought so, too. But if the critic has only read feminist theory and not understood it, then what happens is that you can only read a text through a male critic’s eyes, with the age-old male critical tools and opinions, and not see what’s there, not see that it’s transgressive or subversive. The critic I mentioned earlier said she was very shocked and sorry to see that such a highly educated woman, from such a good family – she mentions my family and my education – is happily writing only about her family.
Domestic space! Only about mother and children and home, and not one word about her education abroad, about life outside – she was very unhappy. There was only one story that she liked in my whole collection, the first one, which was a political story. She’s capable of writing like this, she said, why doesn’t she do just that?
It made me feel like crying, and I thought, how harmful can our training be when we have borrowed the male standards, made them our own…it’s really very shocking that she couldn’t see that here was not only a microcosm, but also a so-called dysfunctional family which functions extremely well. It’s not dysfunctional, it’s just a family without men.
What is a family, usually? Husband, wife, child. Here is a mother, grandmother, daughters – this is not a typical family at all. All the women are single – one widow, one divorcee, two unmarried – and they are having great fun. Not weeping over their…She didn’t even notice that this is a so-called “broken home”, because there are no cracks in it. It’s a complete household which runs properly. People are working, the mother goes out, the children are there, the bedridden old woman is taken care of, and she also takes care the way she can – everything is going on, so much so that she thought it’s a boring, commonplace story.
Why is she writing about mothers and daughters and making people laugh? It’s a situation which usually makes people cry! A tear-jerking situation where there’s one woman who is a permanent invalid and two children without a father, and a woman without a husband – it could have been a terrible situation. (Laughs) Instead, in story after story there are absurd situations which arise in every family and are dealt with in even more absurd ways – and solved.
I think ordinary people understand this perfectly. They love it, they identify with it, they don’t think it’s “domestic”, or impoverished and inconsequential. Maybe male readers do – but younger men, my male students, they read me. They are also informed by feminist theory – not theory, ideology – and they have much more open minds, the young men of today. I’m very satisfied with the New Young Man! (laughs) More than the Older Women of my generation!
Did you deliberately introduce yourself into your writing?
Yes, I did. When my marriage broke – my parents were very well-known people in the Bengali cultural scene, so was my husband because he was the most eligible bachelor around when we got married, so it was a very high profile family. When the marriage broke, again it was a very high profile event and, unfortunately at that time, we didn’t know of any other broken marriages among our friends or relatives, either in Amartya’s family or my family.
In all four families it was the first divorce, and among all our Indian friends this was the first divorce – to this day the only divorce among our generation. So this really wasn’t easy to deal with. Anyway, when I came back (from England) before my divorce – this was the separation – I was actually a poet (I started by writing poetry) and my poems were very intense and sad. They were very strong, good poems, not tearjerkers, but one could see, here is a woman who is going through a lot of trouble…
And I think they were kind of confessional in a way, and they made people feel worried about me. Oh, what’s wrong – everybody knew what was wrong, but my whole readership became very involved with my poems because each new poem told them a little more about what was going on! So I stopped writing poetry for a while, and I think it harmed me in some way, because the flow of my poetry decreased and I started writing prose.
I had started writing prose for children, anyway, this had nothing to do with the break-up of my marriage – it was not broken when I started writing for children – but I decided now that I would write prose for adults, too, funny stories, and about me. My family. I began writing about myself because (laughs) it’s better to be openly confessional than allow people to imagine things! So... this was my home, my family, my mother, my dog, my cat, my daughters, my car. Things are going wrong, things are getting sorted out – all this became part of my readers’ lives. So everybody knows my children by their first names, their nicknames, they know when my dog is well, when it is unwell – it’s a good thing because they forgot to pity me, forgot that there was something unhappy in the background.
So when you introduced yourself deliberately in your text, it worked for you; but when you didn’t want to be, people made you part of it…
Yes. Absolutely. In my poems where I’m not mentioning myself, people made me – you’re absolutely right, Ritu. As I’ve written before, women are always part of their text, no matter what you’re creating. If you’re making a film you become part of that text, if you’re painting something you’re part of that, and if you’re writing, no doubt you become part of that – unless you’re writing like Mahasweta Devi, about tribals, and you cannot become part of that text.
So... this was the truly subversive thing you did, to insinuate yourself into your text, so that people can no longer read into it, because you’ve already written it…
Exactly. And they had to read what I write about it, not what they want to read into it.
Isn’t this unusual for a woman writer, to deliberately introduce herself as the protagonist?
It was for the first time! Our Bengali readers had not seen that before. It was the first time, in Bengal you don’t have it. Even men don’t write like that – to create real stories, story after story after story, about little things happening in your home – even men don’t write like that.
So what you did was to make the dailiness of life universal…
Yes – thank you for that question – that is why people identify with it, it happens in every home.
Tell me about your mother – did she have a particular influence on you as a writer?
(Pause) Yes, she did. She did. (Pause) When I started writing as a child – my first poems were published when I was seven, in my school magazine – two poems in English, two in Bengali, and two prose pieces in English and Bangla, so my debut was as a poet and a prose writer and a bilingual writer! (Laughs)
But the poems are so bad! The prose was good. I still think so. At that time my mother gave me a diary to write in and she said, you can write your poems in it. So I wrote on it “Kabitar Khata” (poetry book). She said, finish one poem then start the next one on a new page. But that’s all, nothing else. She didn’t interfere, she didn’t try to show me how to write or anything like that.
You know, she was a very famous poet, not just literary, but very famous. She got the Tagore Prize when she was 82, in 1986, for something she’d written 56 years ago. But apart from being a very good poet she was also a critic, gave the Sarat Chandra Memorial Lecture...
Did she have an impact on you as a writer?
Well, she looked at my poems but she didn’t try to tell me how to write them. I suppose I never had any problems with my metre or rhyming – she didn’t have to correct me. My father was also a poet and a translator, a man of letters, he learnt Persian and French and German and was extremely well read. He started the first Bengali magazine for teenagers – till this day we don’t have a teenagers’ magazine – called Pathshala in which most of the famous writers of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s wrote, but this was started before I was born and wound up before I began writing.
When you began writing as an adult, what kind of relationship did you have with your mother then?
I had a very important relationship with her as a writer. She was my first reader and she was a heartless critic, which was such a wonderful thing for me. She was a very conscientious reader –everything I wrote she read, and...
You know, everything I write, not only poems, even prose, I write 50 times...I cross out and I throw out, I rewrite and I rewrite – I’m always the last one to submit anything, it has to be snatched from me because I’m never satisfied – so a lot of what I wrote had to be copied out because, nobody could read what I wrote. My mother had a very beautiful handwriting so she was also my copyist! She copied out my writing, she criticised my writing – I miss her very much. When I write something I want to show it to her. It was a wonderful thing. You know, in India we don’t have editors – she was my editor, she was very good.
What did she criticise?
Well, she’d say, maybe instead of this word use another word, instead of having a paragraph on this why don’t you skip it, you don’t need it. Or else she’d say, you know this line is too long, you need a short sentence, things like that. She was a proper editor.
What did she think about your introducing yourself in your writing?
She enjoyed it, she admired it – she didn’t interfere, never…No, she did interfere once, I’ll tell you about that. For her sake I couldn’t write a lot of things that I would have liked to write, not because I had written them and she said don’t publish, not like that. She had her own ideas about what is respectable and what isn’t. And therefore there were topics that I wanted to write on – I think I have been harmed by her in that way.
A lot more expression would have been possible for me because it was in me, I was capable of doing it, I wanted to, and at that time I had the mental make-up for it – because I was desperate. But there were lots of things she didn’t want me to write about, many, many things…In my life she has been a wonderful blessing; at the same time she has been a curse. I’m sorry to say this but it is a fact.
Because all the time I was thinking of her face and my children’s faces – how they’re going to face their classmates and teachers in school, all these things came between me and my writing. And if you talk of censorship, here she was – she was, you know, the censoring officer in my life, and she stood there as a representative of all the social…mores. All the time she would say, think of the children…
What is it that you might have written?
There are many things that I wanted to write about at that time. You know…not only subjects, this was…I was young, my marriage had broken up, I had seen a lot of things, in the West and in my house, and…in my life. Things had happened that I wanted to write about. About sexuality, about man-woman relationships, about deception, about loss, about perversion, about…all kinds of things that I have not been…and I do not know whether I’ll be able to write about them anymore because the moment has passed.
When it was happening before me and I could see, I was witness to a lot of things – I made a mistake, I should have kept…a diary, but I didn’t. I don’t know how people recall things and write. I have a bad memory – but I’ll try. I have been through a lot which I would have liked to write, but for her…
You know, one more point, a very important point is – you know Antara. She was a very naughty child, and both Antara and Nandana had a lot of trouble in school because they were my children. Antara would be naughty, the teacher would call me and say, you know, Nabaneeta was so unruly in class, Nabaneeta won’t listen to me – so I would hear her out and say, Nabaneeta? Then why have you called me, my daughter’s name is Antara.
It was a Freudian slip, but I knew who had made the mistake, not Antara but me. That is what she suffered (voice breaking). It really went like that…So I had to be very careful about what I wrote, and on top of that if I wrote about sexuality, god knows what would have happened to my children. So – men can write whatever they want to, their children don’t have to suffer for that, but in spite of my being very careful about what I write both these girls had to go through a lot. Without knowing why. In spite of being very good students, they were their mothers’ children, so…
You know, censorship has come from many directions…
Did you take up your poetry again at some point?
Well, I continued to write poetry throughout but… much less, and always very careful. In poetry I’m always careful, I’ve never opened myself up in my poems, always used words very carefully…I’ve expressed my emotions powerfully but through images and…I never had to…I don’t know…in a way it was a good thing that I did not try to speak openly…as far as poetry is concerned it has been good for me, I think…in a way.
Even before, when I was very young – my first book came out when I was a student and even then I had to be careful…about love poems. And you start with love poems, anyway…I’ve always been very, very controlled as far as poetry is concerned. So, you see, there has been self- censorship throughout.
What has been your most uninhibited writing?
My most uninhibited writing…I’m such an inhibited person, Ritu, all my writings are inhibited…(Pause) I suppose my academic writing…I don’t think there’s any need for inhibition there…That’s right, I’ve attacked Rabindranath Tagore, I’ve attacked Sukumar Sen…but academic writing is different. The inhibitions are all sexual inhibitions…and you don’t need that in creative writing so it’s not there. And other kinds of inhibition don’t appear in my writing, it’s basically sexual inhibition.
You’ve spoken about the mother-tongue being like mother herself…
That’s obviously the case with your creative writing?
Yes… I should write in English. Honestly. When I was in England I had started writing in English and it was much less inhibited. For example, when you speak in English you can say shit, you can say fuck… you can read it all the time, for the last 20 years these words have meant nothing. You can say even worse things, or read them. You can write…a word like masturbation means nothing, you can use it in conversation.
I mean a woman can…but in Bengali even a man will need guts to use these words, it’s not easy. Because the language is an inhibited one, you don’t use these words in conversation and you don’t use them in writing unless you want to do something new. And now, of course, you do something new and you use these words. But these are transgressive acts, they are acts which are consciously transgressive, and it’s a good thing, but the language does not support them.
Would you say that English gave you some kind of anonymity?
Of course, anonymity. There are two things: first it’s not the language of my home and social background, my readers don’t use it.
But you have said that regardless of the language they use there are limits to women’s literary imagination…
There was that, too, but I suppose now things are changing. In the 21st century what I said in the 20th century doesn’t hold! I hope. You see, we are living through very quick and magical changes…I’m sure younger women, women under 30 writing in Bengali, have a lot more freedom. The shackles that my literary imagination was bound by – they don’t have them, they shouldn’t have them. If they are powerful writers they shouldn’t have them. If they are still bound by them then it’s too bad. If I were 30 I would be different.
I’ve decided to write differently now, because…all the inhibitions that have constrained me so far, I’ll try…to be free and to write about everything that I have not written, everything I wanted to write about…I’ll try. If it’s not good, I won’t publish it, but I’ll try. And I will keep trying till I think it’s publishable, and good.
You’ve said, first your mother was the censor, then you censored yourself – have you ever been censored?
If you have already censored yourself beforehand then you’re not censored, but you are…I’ll tell you something. You were talking about transgression in form – that is where I’ve been censored, because I’ve tried to mix forms. Once in a very famous magazine, Desh, they couldn’t understand what was happening (in what I wrote)… there was a book review, but part of it had to do with visiting this woman and staying in her house, then something to do with the book…
They just censored the whole thing, crossed out pages, took out chunks and made it into a free-flowing straightforward book review. A 45-page thing became a 20-page thing! I’ve never been censored like that. I could not understand it. It wasn’t because of subject matter but because I broke the form. That was a terrible thing. Whenever you transgress and people don’t understand you – it’s a different kind of censorship.
I have been scolded, not censored, for things I have written, by readers. (Laughs) Yes. Not the establishment. I’ve not been censored – s-o-r-e-d, but censured the other way! For example, in one of my travelogues I wrote about sleeping in a bed with six men, and I got a letter saying if you write about sleeping with six men do you ever expect your daughters to get married? All kinds of letters. And in the one about my trip to Tibet, I wrote about sleeping in the same room with a man, twice or three times, and people wrote saying, even if you did that why do you have to write about it…
But I didn’t think I needed to censor that because, as I told you, I wasn’t sleeping with that man. Had I been, I would not have written it. I have slept with men, it’s not that I haven’t – it’s not as if I only had my husband and after that nothing has happened in my life. It’s not true, but I’ve never written about it.
I wanted to, I would have liked to – these experiences were intense and I wanted to…But Ma said no, no, no, nothing doing. I mean, I wouldn’t have written as me, even then, but in any case I would have been part of the text! I don’t know…I suppose I could write so freely about those others because there had been no sexual relations. If there had, I’m sure I would have hidden it.
You think that these women under 30…
I think they have the freedom. Whether they write or not is their choice, but had I been a woman under 30 today I would have written. Because today’s society does not control our lives and words the way yesterday’s did. The sort of things that are being written now by women were not being written before. Like Mandakranta [Sen], you know. This is a different world now, lots of things are permissible. No holds barred is not always a good thing, but it’s good because good writers benefit from it, and women certainly can benefit from it.
But, Ritu, when all is said and done, the regional languages are dying, it really doesn’t matter what we do in these languages, they’re not reaching anywhere beyond the middle-aged – young people are not reading these languages any more, except in the villages. The neo-literates and the semi-literates and the middle-aged – they are reading them, the smart young readership has abandoned the regional languages. Not only Bangla, all the regional languages. That’s why I’m very worried, to tell you the truth I’m very worried.
Many years ago, in 1971 when I started writing in English, I mean I was published in English in good literary magazines, my mother said this is it, now don’t write in Bangla any more, just continue to write in English, that is the language of tomorrow. Bengali is the language of yesterday. That was 1971. I was shocked. And I wrote in Bangla because it was a political choice for me. I couldn’t understand why my mother was saying such horrible things, being a Bengali writer herself, how could she say this? Now I can see that she was far-sighted, she really had very, very distant foresight.
One last question: this slogan, the personal is political – does it have any relationship to your writing?
Yes. I…I believe in that slogan, I think for women it’s very important. It is for us. It’s not right to say… I mean there’s no reason why we should challenge that, I wouldn’t. In my case it has been true. If you look at my writings you can see – I’m glad you asked because in my case it proves that the personal is political.
And you know, it’s also true that it has created a relationship between me and my readers… the amount of love I have received from my readers. Political, personal, whatever you call it, it’s reaching out. I’m not a social worker, I’m just a writer, but how many social workers have thing kind of effect, that people feel they can trust me? I’m obviously creating a bridge between these individuals and myself so that they feel I’m part of their lives… what more can I expect?
This interview was originally published in Storylines: Conversations With Women Writers, Women Unlimited / Asmita, 2003.